Why did the Industrial Revolution Happen in Britain?

The Industrial Revolution heralded a restructuring of human society on a scale unseen since the first Agricultural Revolution, and has become a staple historical idea in classrooms across the world. The question as to why the phenomenon took root in Britain first is a key area of historical contention, and as our understanding of the nature of the Industrial Revolution has changed, so has the scholarship around the reasons for Britain’s advantage. Recent literature has highlighted a range of social, cultural and economic reasons that could have underpinned Britain’s transition towards a modern industrial economy. They all have their pros and cons, but what becomes clear is that no one theory can be fully exhaustive and endogenize every possible causal factor due to the complexity of the issue at hand and the extent of evidence available.

The publication of Robert Brenner’s article in Past & Present in 1976 triggered what became known as the Brenner debate in the late 70s. In it, he proposed a thesis addressing the broader Marxist ‘transition’ debate, the transition in question being that from feudalism to capitalism. Brenner argues that changes in Britain’s agricultural sector prior to Industrialisation proper led to the emergence of the new system of class relations that would later characterise the entirety of industrial society. He argues that historical circumstance such as the failure of peasants’ revolts in the early 15th century and forced Parliamentary enclosure meant peasants failed to establish freehold control of their land. He contrasts this with France, where peasants were much more powerful and were often protected by the monarchy for political reasons. This led to the emergence of a system of landowners renting their land out to profit maximising tenants who used an abundance of labour to increase productivity. Not only did this provide a marketisation template that the rest of the economy would soon copy, but it also represented a shift in what was at the time by far the largest sector in the economy. Furthermore, increases in agricultural probability led to the release of subsistence-wage labour into towns and cities for industrial development. This system of class relations is what Brenner labels ‘agrarian capitalism’. This Marxist perspective was much criticised in the ensuing debate. Though the comparison between England and France suggests the thesis is robust, the fact that serf agriculture, where peasants were practically slaves and much less powerful than both English and French peasants, did not lead to the emergence of such class relations in central and eastern Europe suggests other cultural or institutional factors were at play. Furthermore, this new system of class relations did not emerge in an institutional vacuum. Enclosure would not have been possible if Parliament had not accumulated the power that it did and was not representative of the segment of British landowning society. Furthermore, the temptation to depict a clear transition from one form of class relations to another, one that dogs much Marxist analysis, suggests pre-industrial life was stationary. De Vries points out that changing marriage patterns, demographic regimes, migration flows and household behaviours before the agricultural revolution, a term he contests all together, suggest that the idea of a transition from one static system to another is at best an oversimplification.

An alternative, more modern, explanation focuses on what has been termed the ‘Industrious Revolution’; a consumerist cultural change that made men, in the words of James Steuart, ‘slaves to their own wants’. This demand-side thesis runs against the orthodox focus on supply-side factors and is more in line with recent research suggesting the lead-up to Britain’s industrialisation was a much more gradual affair defined by proto-industrial production of the type De Vries talks about in his exposition of the Industrious Revolution. He argues that the emergence of consumer culture shifted economic incentives for many, explaining the seemingly contradictory simultaneous rise in hours worked & demand for goods alongside the fall in pay observed in Britain in the late 16th and 17th centuries. This effectively eliminated the backwards-bending supply curve that had prevented increases in pay increasing output. Leisure time fell as the marginal utility of money income rose, leading to the reallocation of labor from goods and services for direct consumption to marketed goods. The idea that market access combined with consumerist mentality leads to economic growth is not new, but the story fits well with new data suggesting the process of transition to industrial economy began much earlier in Britain than previously thought. This story, though innovative in its approach, leaves much to be desired. Though he discusses, ‘changes in taste’, De Vries fails to endogenize these cultural changes in his model of industrialisation, though admittedly he argues that the Industrious Revolution is intended to complement rather than replace the Industrial Revolution. The idea thus needs to be appended with theories such as those of O’Rourke and Williamson which focus on the effects of international trade which may have, by introducing new goods to the market and exogenizing their prices, triggered De Vries’ consumerist transition.

Current literature is currently dominated by Allen’s ideas revolving around the combination wage and energy prices unique to the English economy. A fundamentally technological argument rooted in economic circumstance, the theory works on the supply side and provides an explanation for key macro-inventions, such as the spinning jenny and steam locomotive engine. Allen argues that an environment of high wages induced by naval investment, the emergence of an overseas empire and London’s growth as a commercial centre, combined with the low energy prices resulting from an abundance of coal, created a unique iso-cost line that incentivised labour-saving capital-intensive macro-inventions. As he puts it, ‘mechanised factories were invented to cut production costs by substituting cheap energy and capital for expensive British labour’.4 Though the methodology of his analysis of wages in London, based on the wages paid to builders, has been critiqued by Stephenson, most wage data show a gradual rise leading up to the 18th century, a slump, which Allen calls ‘Engles’ Pause’, followed by a continuation of the trend. Allen’s thesis revolving around the high-wage economy fits this pattern well, as he argues the pause was the result of labour being substituted for capital as a result of the economic incentives present at the time. Allen’s theory is popular because it combines ideas about trade, empire, wages and geographical endowments, allowing it to act as an umbrella, integrating other historians’ work into its narrative. Despite this, the theory still raises questions. Was Britain’s overseas expansion rooted in its island nature? Was the transmission mechanism for this institutional or cultural? Did London grow as a commercial centre for economic reasons or because of religious factors? It is clear that no one theory, even one widely accepted by economic historians, can be fully exhaustive in its explanatory power.

Recent advances in statistical techniques and innovative approaches to evidence have meant economic historians must contend with new realities regarding the Industrial Revolution, a historiographical idea that, much like the Renaissance or the Dark Ages, is fundamentally being called into question. In light of this, a wide array of possible explanations for Britain’s early industrialisation have been posited. Agricultural arguments highlight the importance of the sector and how it was one of the first to adopt the capitalist system of class relations. Cultural factors on the demand side may have also stimulated industrial development. Allen’s argument revolving around Britain’s unique set of factor prices is convincing, and yet even this thesis generates more questions than it answers, demonstrating why no theory can truly be all encompassing; there is always room to trace an idea further back through history ad nauseam. It is clear that, if historians are to gain a better understanding of the reasons for Britain’s early industrialisation, a plethora of theories and narratives must to be honed, questioned and improved.



R. Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’, Past & Present, no. 70, 1976, pp. 30-75

J. De Vries, ‘The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution’, Journal of Economic History, vol. 54, no. 2, 1994, pp. 249-270

K. O’Rourke, J. Williamson, ’From Malthus to Ohlin: Trade, Industrialisation and Distribution since 1500’, Journal of Economic Growth, vol. 10, no. 1, 2005, pp. 5-34

R. Allen, ‘The high wage economy and the industrial revolution: a restatement’, Economic History Review, vol. 68, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–22

J. Stephenson, ‘Real contracts and mistaken wages: The organisation of work and pay in London building trades, 1650-1800’, LSE Working Paper, no. 231, 2016

R. Allen, ‘Engels’ Pause: Technical Change, Capital Accumulation, and Inequality in the British Industrial Revolution’, Explorations in Economic History, vol. 46, no. 4, 2009, pp. 418-435

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